California Approves Takedown of San Onofre Nuclear Plant

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Photo Credit: Jelson25/Wikipedia)

OCEANSIDE, Calif. (CN) – The California State Lands Commission Thursday approved plans to remove onshore and offshore infrastructure from the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, as the public continues to raise safety concerns regarding multiple recent incidents with the storage of spent nuclear fuel.

State Lands Commissioners – Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, State Controller Betty Yee and Department of Finance program budget manager Karen Finn approved a final Environmental Impact Report for the decommissioning of SONGS to takedown above ground, some underground and offshore facilities previously used in the operation of the nuclear power plant near San Clemente.

The final step to start tearing down infrastructure at SONGS will be for the California Coastal Commission to issue a permit for the activities now that the EIR has been certified by the State Lands Commission. The project is estimated to start later this year and be completed by 2028.

The full timeline of future activities for final site restoration is unknown.

The approval comes amid an ongoing investigation into the process to bury spent nuclear fuel stored in stainless steel canisters and loaded into vaults on the beach.

Last year, one of the loaded canisters was nearly dropped 18 feet when it became misaligned while being loaded into the vault. It was suspended, without support, for about 45 minutes.

The incident caused SONGS operator Southern California Edison to suspend the transfer of spent nuclear waste while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted site inspections and investigated what led to the incident.

In January, the NRC detailed its findings on the incident and gave Edison the opportunity to explain safety improvements it has made before it issues its final enforcement decision Monday, which may include civil penalties.

At Thursday’s State Lands Commission meeting, much of the public commentary centered on the safety of storing spent nuclear fuel onsite – even though the permit to store the fuel was already issued by the California Coastal Commission in 2015 and wasn’t part of the EIR being considered by the State Lands Commission.

The general consensus in the room was that the ultimate goal is to move the fuel away from the coast once the federal government opens a permanent repository, likely somewhere in the desert.

Edison’s chief nuclear officer and vice president of decommissioning at SONGS, Doug Bauder, told the commission its staff are exploring off-site storage options for the spent nuclear fuel as part of a 2017 settlement agreement. He said the canisters could be ready to ship as early as 2020.

Jennifer Lucchesi, executive officer of the State Lands Commission said a mesa area above the San Onofre site beyond Interstate 5 that has been flouted by nuclear safety advocates as a safer place to store the spent fuel is not under the State Lands Commission’s jurisdiction and the waste could not be moved there.

State Controller Betty Yee said she wants the commission to take “a very active role” in the advocating of moving the spent nuclear waste away from the coast.

“It is clearly the crux of the problem. We should be joining forces,” Yee said.

Safety advocates also asked the commission to modify part of the Environmental Impact Report which would allow Edison to remove cooling pools for spent nuclear fuel which are used to cool down the waste before it is transferred to the stainless steel canisters.

They argued if the pools are removed there will be no “Plan B” if the canisters get damaged and the fuel needs to be transferred temporarily before being stored in a new canister.

But Bauder said there is no regulatory requirement for Edison to keep the pools in place and other shuttered nuclear plants across the country have removed their own pools as part of the decommissioning process.

He said any chance of radiation leaking from a canister would be a “slow moving event” and that only workers, not the public, could be exposed to radioactivity from the nuclear waste canisters.

The fear over damaged canisters isn’t unreasonable – at least one of the canisters designed by Holtec International was found to have a loose four-inch stainless steel pin, known as a shim standoff – during a pre-loading inspection. The canisters also apparently suffer scratches when they are loaded into the vaults.

Charles Langley, executive director of nonprofit Public Watchdogs, pointed out that while the Holtec canisters have a design life of 60 years, they are only guaranteed for 25 years. He said the canisters are fragile, with the thickness of the stainless steel canisters equating to “eggshell thin.”

Nina Babiarz, also with Public Watchdogs, said the commission should not have approved the EIR because it “preempted” Monday’s hearing by the NRC on the agency’s enforcement actions against Edison related to safety issues at SONGS last year.

The California Coastal Commission will likely consider whether to issue a permit to Edison to conduct the rest of the decommissioning of SONGS at its June or October meeting scheduled to be held in San Diego County.

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